In podcasts passim we’ve discussed our regard for the more grounded, somewhat realistic espionage dramas from the likes of John Le Carre, but despite Frederick Forsyth plowing a very similar furrow, I’m not all that familiar with his works. We aim to rectify that today as we discuss the four major adaptations of his work, leaving to one side a slew of TV movies with poor reputations. Join us as we place The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs Of War, and The Fourth Protocol under surveillance, and to allay any of your cynical assumptions, we didn’t pick this topic purely to give our awful Christopher Walken and Michael Caine impersonations another outing. That was only 86% of the rationale.
After France withdrew from Algeria and granted the country independence in the 1960s, several attempts were made to assassinate the French president, Charles de Gaulle, by the right wing paramilitary OSA (Organisation Armée Secrète, or “Secret Armed Organisation”), a French “patriot” group who accused de Gaulle of disloyalty and treason to the French Republic.
After another failed attempt (the film recreates this real attempt) in 1962, the OAS look to an outsider who whose existence will be known to only a select few, and who therefore cannot be betrayed by French police infiltrators, or by torturing OAS members.
The assassin they hire is Edward Fox’s Chacal, The Jackal, presumably British but whose identity is entirely unknown, beyond a reputation for efficiency. He gets to work meticulously planning the assassination, and making all necessary preparations.
The French authorities are oblivious, but they begin to get the idea that the OAS is planning something and, since they’ve tried numerous times already, it’s a fairly good bet that what they’re planning is the assassination of the president.
What follows is a race against time for the police, and a match between the implacable, methodical, capable and highly intelligent Deputy Commissioner, Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), and the implacable, methodical, capable and highly intelligent Jackal. And it’s fascinating.
The Day of the Jackal cleaves very close to Forsyth’s novel, but is one of the very few literary adaptations that are actually, to my mind at least, better than the source as a little of the unnecessary fat is trimmed off, leaving a relatively sedately paced but taut and lean thriller behind. The two leads are simply tremendous; Fox’s killer is so clinical, free largely from emotion (yet not, somehow, from charisma), yet is captivating to watch. And so satisfying is his preparation to watch (so expertly paced by director Fred Zinnemann and editor Ralph Kemplen) that it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of wanting him to succeed (until you remember the whole “cold-blooded murderer” thing, even if de Gaulle was an asshat).
Michael Lonsdale’s stoic Lebel is perhaps my favourite screen detective ever; his unassuming yet assured manner (though unlike the Jackal he does seem to be affected by stress and emotion at times), his quiet tolerance of the doubts and insults of his oafish and supercilious superiors and, above all, his methodical investigation. I have referenced many times before on the podcast, and likely will do so again, just how much I enjoy the fact that Lebel’s pursuit of the Jackal relies almost entirely on hard work, clear thinking, intelligence and experience, and not on tawdry things like serendipity, uncommon luck or, in the case of some of the worst example, something largely indistinguishable from magic or a deus ex machina.
This is not a film that I think I will ever tire of watching. Not even Richard Gere can sully this for me.
It is 1967, and freelance journalist Peter Miller is plying his trade on the streets of the German city of Hamburg when he happens upon the clean-up of an apparently innocuous suicide. An older Jewish German gentleman by the name of Solomon Tauber has seen fit to gas himself in his own home, and upon somewhat of a whim Miller enquires further, obtaining Tauber’s diary and discovering therein a harrowing document of life inside the Nazi concentration camp at Riga.
Lorded over by the horrendous figure of Colonel Eduard Roschmann, the camp at Riga stripped Tauber of everything, including his wife Esther, and he was one of the scarce few inmates to escape with his life at the end of the war. In the intervening years Roschmann was assumed missing following capture by Allied forces and his subsequent escape, however Tauber claims to have seen Roschmann mere weeks previously, very much alive and well in Hamburg, living under a new identity. This, it seems, removed the last of Tauber’s hope.
As a child during the war, Miller is very much of the first generation of Germans forced to confront the crimes perpetrated by his coutrymen during the war, and quietly enraged by the notion of Roschmann’s audacious revival he sets about investigating the Colonel’s whereabouts. Miller’s enquiries lead him via the German police’s somewhat ineffectual Nazi war crimes division who, in 17 intervening years, have brought to justice a mere three men, all of them rank and file soldiers, and it is following this revelation that he learns of the existence of ODESSA; a clandestine network of former SS men still unapologetically dedicated to the heinous ethos of Hitler’s nationalist movement, and who take great pride in setting their members up with new identities both in Germany and around the world.
What’s more, we have already learned from a somewhat superfluous pre-credit sequence that an emboldened ODESSA have channelled their ill-gotten Nazi gains into a perilously-near-completion plan to leverage Egyptian military assets and use chemical weapons in an effort to wipe Israel off the map.
Still, AT LEAST IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN NOW!
The Odessa File is one of those timeless pieces tied to one of modern man’s darkest hours that exists somewhat outside the normal realms of criticism by virtue of the subject matter. Director Ronald Neame, who bookended this movie with The Poseidon Adventure in ’72 and Meteor in ’79, fashions a slightly above average, slow burning thriller that sits quietly and effectively within the pantheon of films that tried to address the outrages of the mid-century, attempting to make sense of the fundamentally senseless. If the re-enactments of certain behaviours and atrocities within Riga appear here as anodyne then it’s probably to the movie’s credit, as what we know of the day-to-day operation of those enterprises suggests that they were perhaps most outrageous in just how matter-of-fact such behaviours became. One flashback in particular where Roschmann giggles as he and two subordinates momentarily trick a young Jewish man into believing he has been shot, only to then shoot him anyway, nails that point down with absolute efficiency.
Maximillian Schell’s portrayal of Roschmann, now of pensionable age, is also very well weighted; here, and in common with the other ODESSA members we meet, is not a monster but a pathetic, angry old man married to bad ideas who refuses to accept his place in history, even doubling down on his rhetoric when confronted by a man with a gun demanding answers. Schell’s screen time is actually very limited, and I’d say appropriately so, as we learn more than enough of he and his ilk in a few moments to be satisfied there is no redemption to be had for his lack of repentance.
It is Voight however who carries the movie as reporter Miller, and a decent fist he makes of it, possibly giving one of his best performances from underneath an accent that could have gone horribly wrong. As a leading man he certainly convinces, and the character of Miller is alert enough not to make the kinds of dumb plot-necessitising mistakes that often befall movie reporters, though innocent and idealistic enough to sell the momentum of his moral outrage as a propellant through what could have been an otherwise convoluted and improbable set of circumstances.
As well researched as Forsyth’s own investigation into ODESSA was there is much discourse in literature over whether the organisation actually ever existed. It’s somewhat of a moot point, however, as any number of similar organisations are very well documented, and there remains testimony to much of their activity through the many organisations who, up until very recently, were still very much pursuing remaining Nazi war criminals in the remotest of places.
Having said all that, the thing that scares me most about The Odessa File and other media approaching this subject matter is that it’s relevance to the West will perhaps have changed somewhat in the last two years; the notion of a far right organisation having to operate under the radar has been somewhat knocked on the head recently, to the point where I can imagine those deluded enough to buy into the degenerate dream of white supremacy holding material like this up as blatant disinformation. What a generation of future armchair critics will make of it twenty years from now is anybody’s guess, but I suppose it’s our job to see to it that The Odessa File remains relevant, if not high art.
Hi diddle de dee, a mercenary’s life for me. Gun for hire James Shannon (Christopher Walken) escapes one wartorn situation only to return home to an America with about as much welcome to it for him. Not for long, however, as he’s approached by corporate interests with an assignment to reconnoitre Zangaro, the African state twinned with Val Verde. After achieving a measure of post-colonialisation democracy, the winner of their first election, General Kimba, decided that’s quite enough of that, imprisoning, killing or exiling his rivals in that race and setting up a good ol’ fashioned Junta.
However, he’s not playing nice with mineral exploitation rights, hence the corporate interest in him. Off Shannon goes, posing as a nature photographer to at least partially allay the suspicions of the paranoid Kimba regime. Shown the lay of the land by some unhelpful local guides, and a rather more helpful Irish journalist, Colin Blakely’s Alan North, he sneaks out to find the weak points in the central compound’s defences. It doesn’t go entirely smoothly, complications leading to him being if not exactly discovered, detained after the military jumps to the correct conclusion and present him with a sound beating. He’s only saved from death by the ministrations of jailed ex-presidential candidate Dr. Okoye (Winston Ntshona), and the threat of some bad publicity from North’s reporting. Bundled on a plane back to America, he submits his report.
Liking the cut of his gib, said corporate interests decide he’s just the man to plan and head up a bit of regime change, with the aim of installing George Harris’ Col. Bobi as a more friendly option. Reluctantly, Shannon makes the choice to to endanger what’s left of his relationship with his ex-wife to front this operation, and goes about the business of convincing his gang of mercenaries to join in, training Col. Bobi’s troops, planning the operation and working out the black market logistics.
This all takes a perhaps surprising amount of the running time, in a modern cinema landscape that I suspect couldn’t resist cramming all of that into a montage and getting straight to the shooting, which in this film comes very late to the party. And while for the most part that action is handled adequately, daft grenade launcher thingy aside, it’s not really the point of Dogs of War, which is much happier looking at the bigger plan, and at worldview this sort of activity imparts on Shannon, and the great divergence between that and normal society.
As it turns out, this is exactly my sort of jam, so I found this rather enjoyable, although I recognise it’s by no means an extraordinarily amazing film. It’s pinned down by a restrained performance from Walken, who I occasionally forget is a good actor when he’s not being a caricature, and the nuts and bolts of arranging the overthrow attempt is very interesting, to me at least. It’s mildly marred by an ending that I’m not convinced Shannon’s characterisation quite backs up, and will almost certainly be “rectified” by others halfway through the credits, but that’s a very small element of the piece as a whole.
Perhaps not worth making extraordinary efforts to watch, but it’s a solid, slow burning entry in this little subgenre that’s not exactly overserved, so gets a few extra points for that. And, well, any film that reminds me of The Last King of Scotland can’t be a bad thing.
The mid 1980s, and in the Soviet Union the head of the KGB, General Govorshin (Police Squad!’s Alan North), puts into motion a plan to make the United States seem negligent and careless in its ownership of nuclear weapons, with the end goal being the dissolution of NATO. To this end he sends Pierce Brosnan’s Major Valeri Petrofsky, an expert in British customs, to the UK to construct an atomic bomb and cause its detonation in or near to the USAF base at the fictional RAF Baywaters (a cunningly concealed name, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real RAF Bentwaters. Get around that one, lawyers!).
Attempting to discover the details of the plot is Michael Caine’s John Preston, whose serendipitous sideways “promotion” at MI5 leads to him stumbling onto a Soviet agent posing as a sailor who had in his possession a disc of polonium, an item whose sole purpose, we are told, is to form part of the detonation mechanism for an atomic bomb. He brings his discovery to Unreasonable Arsehole Boss (played by Julian Glover), the same person who had him moved out of his original job, but UAB comes to the mind-bendingly stupid conclusion that Preston has made up the plot (and, presumably, the polonium) in order to gain promotion or favour. (This is, sadly, the hardest thing to buy in any of these films, with the exception of the 1997 abomination we must, sadly, come to soon: these Frederick Forsyth films, and the books they are based on, are marked out by how grounded and plausible they are).
Going around UAB to Ian Richardson’s Sir Nigel Irvine to get the resources that he needs, Preston tracks down Petrofsky and, sorry to spoil anything here, stops 5,000 people from being killed and large parts of Oxfordshire being rendered uninhabitable for centuries. There is a final twist, though, when Preston follows up on a hunch as to why some of his investigation was easier than it might otherwise have been.
Also, unless I missed something, this film tells us that there is a fourth protocol in the nuclear weapons agreements between the USSR and NATO, but neglects to tell us what it is. Curious.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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